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Health Ministry officials refuse to allow 35 Palestinian doctors from East Jerusalem to attend Israeli certification exams - and help relieve a shortage of doctors there.

The ministry claims the doctors, who graduated from Al-Quds University, are not eligible to sit the certification exams, usually taken by doctors who qualified abroad to enable them to practice in Israel. The ministry says Al-Quds cannot be considered a "foreign university" since it holds offices in Jerusalem.

Due to a shortage of doctors in East Jerusalem, many uncertified doctors treat patients, and there is an active black market for certified doctors' stamps.

In 2006 the Health Ministry rejected requests by a group Al-Quds University medical graduates from East Jerusalem to take the Israeli certification exams that would enable them to practice in Israel. After attorney Shlomo Lecker petitioned the Jerusalem District Court on their behalf, Judge David Cheshin ordered the ministry's former director general to appear in court and explain his decision.

Shortly after the judge's order, the state prosecutor announced, on behalf of the Health Ministry, that the graduates' request had been accepted, following a meeting of all "senior officials of the Council for Higher Education and the Health, Justice and Education ministries." But despite the formal announcement, Health Ministry officials still failed to allow the graduates to take the tests, and did so only after Lecker requested a court hearing, citing contempt.

A year ago the Health Ministry again refused to allow 35 graduates to sit the exams. Lecker, who was again asked to represent the graduates, believed he had an easy case, due to his former success, but Judge Noam Sohlberg, who has since been appointed to the Supreme Court, refused a request to hear the case urgently, so that the graduates could take the exam as soon as possible.

Lecker's appeal addressed the dire condition of the health system in East Jerusalem, where hospitals are in desperate need of doctors.

Ahmed Labrikat, director of the Clalit health maintenance organization's East Jerusalem clinics, described in his affidavit that the shortage is so acute that he has no doubt that Clalit - Israel's largest HMO - would be glad to employ dozens of local doctors.

"Despite the shortage, there are very few Arab-speaking doctors willing to work in East Jerusalem," he stated. "Israeli-Arab doctors prefer to work in the Galilee or the center. On top of that, doctors from the western part of Jerusalem aren't willing to work in East Jerusalem."

Lecker also submitted a letter written by Prof. Leonid Eidelman, chairman of the Israel Medical Association, to the Health Ministry's director general, Prof. Roni Gamzu. "We are well aware of the difficulty in finding doctors that suit the conditions in East Jerusalem," Eidelman wrote. "In my opinion, the best medical treatment can be offered only by a local resident, who is deeply familiar with the local culture and inhabitants. For that reason I believe that Al-Quds graduates are the best suited doctors for East Jerusalem citizens. I beseech you to use all your powers and recognize the university graduates as eligible to attend the Israeli certification exams."

In his reply to Eidelman's letter, Gamzu said: "The question involves matters of location, the university's branching and other issues. It has nothing to do with the policy regarding shortage of doctors."

"The Health Ministry director general's job is to guarantee medical treatment, not to deal with the territorial status of academic institutes," Lecker told Haaretz.

As for the expected court ruling - the petition was submitted last June - he is far from optimistic. "Sohlberg spent many years in the Jerusalem District Court and I can't recall any case in which he was the sole judge and ruled in favor of an Arab that appealed against an Israeli governmental institution," he said. "I hope for the best, but I wouldn't bet against him changing his policy. This time he will have to use all his professional know-how if he rejects the petition, since it's identical to the one dealt with by Judge Cheshin."

Basel Nasser, one of the graduates, passed the American certification exams, which are considered extremely difficult, and said he already has job offers from two Israeli hospitals - as soon as he is certified. "There are 199 states in the world," he said, "and 198 of them agree to certify students from my medical school. I can't close the Al-Quds Jerusalem offices by myself. What can I do?"

Al-Quds University is one of the most acclaimed Palestinian academic institutions. In 1994 it established a medical school in Abu Dis, beyond Jerusalem's municipal borders, considered one of the best medical schools in the Arab world.